This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first publication of William Shakespeare’s plays, and two surviving copies of the first folio are going on display in London.
Of the estimated 750 copies of the first folio that were printed, around 230 are thought to survive, and just 50 of them are in the UK, mostly owned by libraries and other public institutions, with just 27 copies worldwide known to be in private ownership.
The first folios were printed in Jaggard’s Print House and likely sold in Edward Blount’s shop next to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1623 where many booksellers were based. As was commonplace at the time, the buyers would have bought the book without a cover, and ordered a binding that they preferred to have for the book.
The folio wasn’t the first attempt to publish Shakespeare’s plays, as there had been unauthorised copies published before, typically by people in the audience transcribing them without permission. The folios are however notable for being the first formal attempt to collect as many plays as could be found from reliable sources and publish them in a single book to be read.
Without the folio being published, it’s likely that many of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost. It’s far easier to lose, or discard as unwanted a single play – but a whole book was a substantial purchase at the time, and would have been much treasured. That preserved the plays for posterity.
Experts on Shakespeare’s life and work have asserted that, if two of his friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, had not gathered the plays together for the First Folio, half of them, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Antony and Cleopatra would have been lost forever.
Now, in the 400th anniversary of the printing of that first folio, two copies will go on public display in London, alongside a number of copies that are on permanent display.
National Maritime Museum
One will be on display for several months at the National Maritime Museum, which has been loaned a copy owned by Dulwich College.
The Dulwich copy will be on display from 31st March until 24th September 2023, and will be free to view in the museum. Displayed alongside the First Folio will be a copy of The Telltale, a manuscript play written sometime after 1605, and a petition from Thames watermen to reopen the Rose Theatre in 1590 following an outbreak of plague.
As well as the First Folio display, the National Maritime Museum is also co-hosting a two-day conference in September dedicated to exploring Shakespeare and the Sea.
On 24th April, the City of London will display its copy for one day, along with short talks on the hour throughout the day.
The City of London’s copy will be on display in the Guildhall Library, which is just around the side of the Guildhall building between 10:30am and 3:30pm.
Two small and original copies (‘Quartos’) of Henry IV Part One and Othello will also be on display, next to a replica copy of the First Folio that visitors will be invited to look through.
The V&A’s ‘Forster’ First Folio is on display in the Theatre and Performance Galleries room 103 now and throughout 2023.
There will also be a tour of the museum on Folio Day – 23rd April, looking at the impact of the book on theatre and plays.
There are first folios also on display at the British Library, in their Treasures gallery, at the Globe Theatre
Buy a copy
There are four more copies – if you’re rich, as the antiquarian bookseller, Peter Harrington has been offered four copies, for sale — although only one is a First Folio, the others are later reprints. However, you can only see them if you’re interested in buying them, although if still unsold they might go on display at the London Rare Book Fair in May.
Rest of the UK
Several other copies are also on display across the UK – full details here.
- King’s College Library, Cambridge
- Queens College, Oxford
- Weston Library, Oxford
- Blackwell Hall, Weston Library, Oxford
- Winchester College, Winchester
- The Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon
- Longleat House, Wiltshire
- Birmingham Central Library
- Brotherton Library, Leeds
- John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester
- The Craven Museum, Skipton
- Stonyhurst, Lancashire
- Old Trinity Library, Dublin
- Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Foundation Corboud, Cologne
- The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
- The Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow
- Marble Hall, Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute
UPDATED – the folios for sale are not on public display.